Assisting Justices of the Peace in performing their judicial duties

History of Justices of the Peace

Justices of the Peace can be said to date from 1609. In that year (after an earlier abortive attempt) James VI & I introduced an Act Anent the Comissioners and Justices of peace into the Parliament of Scotland.

The office was intended as a royal counter-balance to the power of the office of Sheriff, then held hereditarily by great landowners, and was in imitation of a similar device in England and Wales. Thus JPs in Scotland have a four hundred year history and, incidentally, predate the creation of the High Court of Justiciary in 1672. Although their original functions were administrative and policing as much judicial, they were intended to be lay persons, dispensing criminal justice, on a local basis. These features have continued, through numerous changes, to the present day.

The modern history of JPs, however, commences in 1975 with the District Courts (Scotland) Act of that year. A mixture of burgh and police courts in the burghs (in which the judges were the burgh’s bailies), and JP Courts in some landward areas, had grown up over the centuries. This mixture was replaced by new “District Courts”, one in each of the new local government districts which replaced the old burghs and counties in a major local government re-organisation. The courts thus remained administered by local government, which made nominations for appointment as JP to central government, and was responsible for training, though JP’s commissions were still held from the Crown. JPs remained lay persons, dispensing criminal justice on a local basis. Sometimes they sat singly, sometimes in benches of two or three, but now always assisted by a legally qualified assessor (though in Glasgow salaried stipendiary magistrates were used in addition).

However, there are more recent major changes. The Report of the Summary Justice Review Committee (the “McInnes Report”) in 2004 looked in general at the problems of summary justice (that is, the great majority of criminal proceedings in which there is no jury, and which were taken by Sheriff Courts and District Courts). In modified form, its recommendations were enacted in the Criminal Proceedings (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007.

This legislation thus introduced several major changes, including “unification” of the Scottish courts into a more integrated hierarchy, which are still being brought in. Firstly, the title “District Court” is to be replaced by “JP Court”. Secondly, these courts are to be run by the Scottish Courts Service (as Sheriff Courts are). Thirdly, they are to be administered by Sheriffdom, under Sheriffs Principal, with one in each Sheriff Court District (again, as Sheriff Courts are). Fourthly, JPs are appointed for renewable five year periods to the age of 70. In addition to these changes, there are other important changes to the method of appointment and training arrangements of JPs. Also, the range of cases taken by JP Courts is likely to expand.

However, there remains a high level of continuity from earlier arrangements. Justices of the Peace are still lay persons dispensing criminal justice on a local basis.

For more information on the subject see “All Manner of People – The History of the Justices of the Peace in Scotland”.  Author  :  J Findlay  :  Publisher  :  The Saltire Society